There can be no doubting the piety of American society in this, the first decade of the 21st century. It’s old news by now: The powerful influence of conservative Christians on culture and politics. An outwardly Christian president in the White House. Survey data showing the vast majority of Americans pray, believe in God and consider religion important in their lives.
“Pious,” however, means something different than “religious.” While both convey devotion to God and ultimate truth, “pious” also suggests showiness, sanctimony, even hypocrisy ”” a gap between words and action. Such a gap, unfortunately, seems glaringly on display when we survey the social landscape around us. If one is to judge by our care for the common good, American society today is more pious than consistently and truly religious.
Let’s start with violence, a phenomenon hard to square with New Testament teachings about living in peace and Old Testament commandments not to kill one another. For all our virtues, we are beyond doubt a violent society, inundated by weapons, murders and pop culture glorification of violence to a degree unmatched by other First World nations.
The massacre at Virginia Tech this spring might seem an extreme case. Defenders of gun rights warn against overreaction, claiming that mass shootings, however horrific, are quite rare. In truth, Virginia Tech-style massacres happen every day, albeit in less dramatic form. Statistics show that gun violence kills close to 30,000 people a year in America, or about 80 a day ”” more than double the number slain in Blacksburg, Va. Is this what one should expect of a country guided by Jesus, the “Prince of Peace”?
Then there is the violence projected by our government. Here, too, it is impossible to claim that America is a peaceful nation in the image of Christ. Under the Bush administration, the United States has pursued an aggressive foreign policy and a war in Iraq that theologians struggle to justify with Christian doctrines about morally defensible war. Certainly, the case can be made that dangerous forces left our government with no choice but to fight. But the question must be raised again: Is our behavior as a nation consistent with our ostensibly Christian character?